The Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission held its annual conference in Woonsocket this year. Being a new resident of the state, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn more about this beleaguered mill town on the Blackstone River, so I registered for a walking tour of Main Street and a seminar on tax credits and historic preservation.
The day began in the surprisingly dreary Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. It’s hard to imagine any aspiring artist being inspired by the drab interior. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall even seeing any student art on the walls!
I did, however, get a chance to chat with two lively volunteers from Roger Williams University. Both were undergraduates studying historic preservation at the university’s School of Architecture, Historic Preservation, and Visual Arts.
Next stop was the Stadium Theater, built in 1926 for touring vaudeville acts. Graced with intricate gilded plaster work, the facility was restored in 2001. It hosts regional theater companies, off-beat comedy (drag queen Kitty Litter, anyone?) and tribute bands.
Exiting the theater, our group headed up Main Street, stopping in front of an old bank (now the YMCA aquatics center), a string of mostly closed storefronts, and a pocket park overlooking the Truman Bypass (built in the 1950s to relieve congestion on city streets, it killed Main Street instead). Just beyond, I could see glimpses of the Blackstone River and two gray stone mill buildings (recently converted to condominiums).
Next up was the not-quite-ready-for-primetime Museum of Broadcast Technology. A true labor of love, the founders bought the massive stone building for a song and promptly filled it with their collection of television cameras and videotape systems from the “golden age of broadcasting.” It is not open to the pubic yet, but (pardon the pun) stay tuned!
Lunch was at the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Museum of Work and Culture. I was so busy chatting with three young docents from the Hearthside House Museum in Lincoln (big shout out to Naythan, Hannah, and Harmony) that I barely saw the fabulous exhibits. I will definitely be back for a closer look.
We resumed the tour with a visit to Le Moulin Village, the three-story brick building right next door. Described as an “artist’s enclave,” and filled with a quirky variety of tenants including Narnia (yarn), The Primitive Millhouse (furniture and decor), a fencing academy, and Stage Right, Studio for Arts and Wellness, it is a testament to owner Marie Deschenes’ tenacity and to Woonsocket’s willingness to nurture entrepreneurs, no matter how unconventional.
As the day ended, we climbed in our car for the short drive to St. Ann Arts & Cultural Center for the closing reception. I was not prepared for what I found.
It literally took my breath away.
Built for a thriving French Canadian community in 1913 and closed by the Diocese in 2000, it is European in its grandeur; filled with over 40 French-made stained glass windows and 175 hand-painted frescos. It was, quite simply, the most astounding thing to stumble upon in this down-on-its-luck mill town.
I’m glad I spent the day in Woonsocket. I’ll be back, and this time I’m bringing my friends with me!